Once again recently I found myself in a public Forest Service (FS) meeting listening to the FS answer a question and wondering how to make sure the best management options received fair consideration. I was at the annual meeting for OFHWHIP (Oconee Forest Health and Wildlife Habitat Improvement Project—acronym much needed), the Oconee Ranger District’s massive project that pre-approves FS timber harvests, prescribed burns, and invasive species control on about two-thirds of the District. Much of the project is driven by the red cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered bird for which the FS is legally required to manage habitat. The woodpecker requires open woods for foraging and old pine trees for nesting.
The FS piqued my curiosity with their plans to thin one of the oldest pine stands on the District, loblolly pines around 120 years old. If the woodpeckers need old pines, why was the District planning to cut some of their oldest pines? They explained they were concerned the pines would all die at once, which would leave the woodpeckers with nothing.
Visit Congaree National Park and you can see 190-year-old loblolly pines. Over fifteen years, I’ve seen many of the pines die, but they’ve done so a few at a time, not all at once. Since I’d seen forest that contradicted the FS’s concern, I asked if they had any evidence to validate their concern. The conversation turned, and the question was left hanging.
While I disagree with the FS’s decision in this case, the bigger problem is the nature of the dialogue. National Forests belong to the public, and public input can provide tremendous help in improving their management. At this meeting, however, the FS seemed to view questions from the public as threats to existing decisions. While the discussion was polite and professional, the priority appeared to be avoiding changes to existing plans rather than exploring ideas that might produce a healthier forest. To be fair, many FS staff are open to genuine discussions and have put in extra effort to accommodate public feedback. However, when you see this closed approach repeatedly, it undermines the FS’s claims they want to collaborate.
Imminent Foothills Landscape meetings bring this issue to the fore. The FS wants to collaborate on the site specific decisions—where to cut trees, where to burn—only after the official National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. That approve-first-collaborate-later scenario is what the FS has with OFHWHIP, and we are seeing how poorly it works in the real world. In contrast, the traditional approach discloses all the locations of specific FS actions during the NEPA review. NEPA requires the FS to consider public comments, and if the public isn’t happy, they can object to the project. If a resolution cannot be found through an objection, people can appeal to the judicial system. With Foothills, the FS is asking the public to give up that recourse, and promising they will remain responsive to public concerns.
The FS is made up of well-intentioned people doing hard jobs. Sometimes the job is so hard they are tempted to think there is only one way to get things done. Part of the service the public provides is shifting the spotlight of attention and widening the options. But the public can only do that if all the necessary information is disclosed before decisions are made.